It wasn’t easy to find the right Ali Mohamedian on Facebook. That name is about as common in Persian as “John Smith” is in English. But I was determined to make amends, after all these years. And to thank the man who was responsible for getting me out of Iran.
“Atash, is that really you?” His voice on the phone was still gentle, slightly hesitant, but elegant. “They said you were dead?”
“Dead?” I was still studying his voice. For so long, that voice had embodied all the hope in the world for me. “Ali, who said I was dead?”
“My family. I tried to find you, but they told me not to bother. You were assassinated, they said.”
His choice of words seemed funny. “Assassinated? Like a politician? Or a spy?” I giggled.
“I’m serious,” he said. “They said you moved back to Iran and got into … problematic behavior. And then … then you were dead, and there was nothing more I could do.”
“Ali jan,” I said. “I’m very much alive. That’s why I’ve been looking for you. I’m calling to tell you how grateful I am. You saved my life. If you hadn’t helped me, I really would be dead. I love my life here in America, and I wouldn’t be here if not for you.”
“Atash jan,” he said seriously. “You broke my heart. I’m glad you’re doing well. But you broke my heart all the same.”
It was so long ago. My mother had been so determined to get me married. “Youth is an asset,” she would say daily as she arranged for my khastegari meetings with suitors. In Iran, khastegari is a sort of ritual performance in which the families of a potential bride and groom come together to talk and watch the bride serve tea. It can be beautiful, since it allows men and women who normally wouldn’t have any contact to get to know each other.
I, of course, wanted nothing to do with any of it, and I was constantly scheming about how to get rid of my suitors, usually by acting insane until they left: I’d blow huge bubbles with my gum in rapid succession or burp very loudly or make gurgling sounds with my throat. This would enrage my mother, but there wasn’t anything she could do when the suitor inevitably got up and said, “It was truly a pleasure meeting your beautiful daughter, ma’am,” and bolt for the door.
But the suitors kept coming. I dealt with this situation by refusing to shower. I eventually smelled so bad that no one could last more than a minute in my presence. I stopped brushing my teeth and let my hair form into mats so thick even the widest comb couldn’t pass through them. My utter lack of hygiene made my mother cry. “How will I ever find someone to marry you?” she wailed. “Who likes a filthy girl?” And I’d reply, “No one, Mommy! No one!”
One day, however, she tricked me into going to a hamaam, one of those open, public baths that exist throughout the Middle East. She had told me we were going shoe shopping, but she insisted on first stopping by this gruesome spot in Katalom that was completely dark and filled with skinny old ladies from the north who were known for the aggressive way they scrubbed their victims. My mother paid a few of these hags to clean me up. “Good luck,” she told them, as she left me in their care.
“We’ll make her shine like glass,” they promised.
The women were good at their work, but they met their match in me. “I’m not taking off my clothes,” I said.
“Yes, you will,” they said, and began to strip me by force. They began to gag as my clothes came off and the smell of my body filled the air. That didn’t stop them, though. They shampooed and combed my tangled hair. They filed my dirty toenails. I threw punches at them, but they dodged these and kept scrubbing me. After a while, I gave in and let them do their job. Then they began to talk about me amongst themselves as though I weren’t in the room. The hamaam was dark and steamy and I heard their voices through the fog.
“She’s a beautiful girl,” one said.
“Yes, though it was hard to tell at first with all that dirt.”
“What would make a girl want to look like that?”
That question got my attention. I’d never heard anyone ask why I was doing what I was doing before. I began to cry. I cried and cried until I had no more water in my body, until they had finished. Then, one of the ladies took my chin and raised it and said, “Don’t be so sad. You’re young and have the rest of your life ahead of you. You never know what the future will bring.”
This comment got the other ladies philosophizing. “If I were her age again,” one said, “I’d go to college and become a doctor.” The first lady laughed at this, and soon all of them were talking about their joys and regrets. They’d forgotten about me. Pretty soon they were all laughing, and I was laughing with them too.
A week later, my mother told me, “There’s a man coming tomorrow.” And then, as if to warn me that she had a plan, she said, “It will be different this time.” She got up early the next day and cleaned the whole house. She washed clothes, dusted furniture, watered plants, and vacuumed our Shirazi carpets. She danced around, singing songs she invented: “My daughter’s gone to a riiiich man’s home.”
I’m not even eighteen yet, I thought, as I washed the dishes in the kitchen. What’s the rush? But our schedule for the day had two suitors on it. My mother meant business.
Suitor #1 looked older than my father. When I saw how old he was, I immediately stormed into the kitchen on the pretense of making him and his buttoned-up, long-sleeved, head-scarf-wearing family some tea. As soon as I was alone in the kitchen, I found one of my mother’s cigarettes and began to smoke. The suitor’s sister soon followed me into the kitchen. She was wearing all black and showed no hair under her chador.
“Oh,” she asked when she saw me standing there. “You smoke?”
“Yes,” I said proudly. “Lots and lots. Every. Single. Day.” I watched her go back into the living room. I counted to thirty, in which time, I figured, she’d have notified her brother to leave. They did, with my distraught mother trailing behind them all the way to their Mercedes, begging them to say what had gone wrong.
Our bell rang a few hours later. Suitor #2. My mother had asked me to fry some potatoes and act as though I was the one who was preparing the dinner, presumably so the man could imagine a future in which he would be fed by me. I hadn’t actually started doing that yet, so when I heard the bell, I ran to the kitchen to start the frying. If I must marry, I begged God, at least let him be young, handsome, and fun. I stared out the window trying to catch a glimpse of him. “Please let him not be fifty years old.”
My mother came into the kitchen holding a silver tray with glasses on it. She put the tray in my hand and said, “Breathe … and smile.” Then she pushed me out into the living room. Silence hung over the crowd seated there. I kept looking at the tray as I walked towards them, counting my steps, “One, two, three …” hoping I didn’t drop anything. The glasses rattled loudly as I walked. I felt relieved when I got to the couch. I sat the heavy tray down and kept my gaze averted.
I couldn’t bring myself to look up, so I judged where the people were by looking at their feet. I carried the tray over to the first pair of feet. “Befarmayeed,” I said, “Please take one.” I went around this way till I reached the pair of feet I knew belonged to the suitor, because when I got there the room became absolutely silent.
“Salaam, Atash-khanom,” the owner of the feet said in a nice voice.
“Salaam bar shoma,” I replied. “Hello to you.”
His kind voice gave me confidence to look up. He was wearing black pants and a white shirt. He was definitely handsome. He looked to be in his late thirties, though, which felt way too old for me, but he was the best of the bunch so far. I knew that everyone in the room was looking at me. My mother immediately began to “work it” from the other side. “What a handsome man!” she said. “If I were young again, mister, I would certainly say yes to you.” Then she cackled to a completely silent room.
As soon as the last glass was put down, I got up to carry the dishes back to the kitchen. As I did, I passed a large fan that had been set up in a corner of the room to counter the summer heat. I was bending over to pick up the last glass, when everyone in the room made a collective “Ugggh,” and their faces contracted.
“Your skirt! Your skirt flew up!” my stepfather hissed at me, and I knew I had officially killed the deal.
After that day, my mother stopped scheduling suitors’ visits and stopped talking to me at all. This lasted about a year. Then one day, out of the blue, she spoke to me, bubbling with excitement: a distant relative in America had seen a photo of me and liked that my name meant “fire.” I was extremely depressed in those days, and I figured wouldn’t make it too much longer in Iran, so I listened to what she had to say.
His name was Ali. I didn’t understand how someone who didn’t know or had ever seen me was going to be my savior, but I convinced myself it might be possible to love a stranger. Ali called me every day for the next four weeks. “We can get to know each other this way,” he said, which was exactly what I was terrified of. What if he finds out I have a messed-up brain or that I’m not a virgin? After all, virginity was as valuable as gold in those days. So I decided to tell him the truth. I mustered up all the courage within me and explained to him that I was hurt as a child and hadn’t been a virgin since the age of five. This was the first time I’d ever said those things to anyone. It helped that he was far away and our conversation was over the phone. My hands were shaking as we spoke, and I started to cry.
“I couldn’t care less about virginity,” he said. His response was warm and calming, but I wasn’t sure if he understood. Maybe he was trying to avoid having to deal with the issue of my child abuse but after that conversation, we trusted each other more. We spent more time on the phone laughing and talking about all the places in America we would visit when I got there. I felt safe and protected by him, even from the other side of the world.
Within a few months, arrangements were made and I was on my way to America to be his bride.